Most of the time, couples think about child custody agreements for biological children resulting from a dissolving marriage. However, in a culture where more than 50% of American children of divorce experience a remarriage of one or both parents, family law specialists frequently handle stepparent visitation cases as well.
Unfortunately, regardless of how long a stepparent has been in a child’s life or the bond they may share, current California law does not automatically grant stepparent visitation rights when a couple divorces – or if the biological parent dies. This is why we recommend blended families work with family law specialists to ensure the child’s wellbeing is always a top priority in any divorce.
Securing Visitation Rights As A Stepparent
Here are the legal steps you can take, whether you are a stepparent about to divorce a partner with children, or you’re in the midst of a divorce and want your children to retain a relationship with their stepparent after the divorce.
Have honest conversations with your children
If your children are old enough, it’s essential to discuss the situation with them in age-appropriate ways. You may want to work with a family counselor or therapist to facilitate this process. Children are inherently wired to protect their parents’ emotional well-being and may be afraid to let a mom or dad know they want to remain in contact with their step-parent.
In most cases, step-parents interested in maintaining a relationship with former stepchildren have developed solid and reciprocal bonds. Creating a visitation schedule is a healthy way to protect a child’s emotional wellbeing through the divorce proceedings and beyond.
Make co-parenting a priority
If the children’s other biological parent is still in the picture, you are not involved in a co-parenting triangle. Co-parenting isn’t easy, but every study ever done on children and emotional health during/after a divorce focuses on the importance of healthy co-parenting. Create co-parenting agreements between all relevant parties and use it as something you can all come back to remain on the same page with parenting, regardless of the adults’ water under the bridge.
Consult with a family law mediator
Using a family law mediator can exponentially decrease the stress and financial drain common in a divorce. This is especially true if there are children in the picture. Your divorce agreement, including child custody and visitation agreements, is yours to create. The courts uphold virtually anything you agree to as long as all relevant parties sign the documents.
Your family law mediator can work with you and the children’s other biological parent to create a visitation agreement that makes sense. Sometimes, this includes scheduled days, overnights, weekends, or vacations. Or, the agreement may be as simple as regular phone calls, email/text communication, and open invitations to all birthdays and important school or extracurricular activities.
You can fight for your right as a stepparent.
The first three recommendations are for couples and families who can navigate the same page. In some cases, this may not be possible. For example, if your stepchild’s parent(s) resist your request to retain visitation rights of some kind, the law may still be on your side.
California family law code states: Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the court may grant reasonable visitation to a stepparent if visitation by the stepparent is determined to be in the minor child’s best interest. That holds true as long as the visitation by the stepparent doesn’t conflict with the custody or visitation of the other custodial parent who is not part of the divorce proceeding.
Factors the court considers when ruling on stepparent and visitation/custody include:
- Age of the child.
- Length of the stepparent/child relationship.
- Any history or evidence of domestic violence or abuse.
- Emotional relationship/strength of the bond between the child and biological parent (in some cases, stepparents are the more stable and emotionally healthy adults).
- Resistance from either biological parent about the stepparent’s child visitation request. In this case, the stepparent must show unarguable evidence their presence is in the child’s emotional best interest.
- Input from the child if they are old enough.
The first step is to find an experienced family lawyer and schedule a consultation. While clear communication with the other party/parties and mediation is always our first recommendation and preference, we are happy to support you in court if it is in the best interest of the child.
Have you considered adopting the child?
If the other biological parent is out of the picture, it is in a devoted stepparent’s best interest to adopt the child if they want a legally vested interest in the child’s present and future wellbeing. However, keep in mind that even the most attentive and loving stepparents have zero legal rights in their child’s lives.
For example, you can take them to the hospital in an emergency, but you can’t authorize medical treatment; you can pick them up from school if they’re ill, but only if a biological parent has added you as an emergency contact. Even so, you cannot sign any legal school documents or forms.
Adopting your stepchildren, when possible, gives you the automatic consideration of the courts if you and your spouse or partner decide to separate or divorce down the road.
Expert Legal Advice Is A Must For Stepparent Visitation Rights
Expert legal advice is necessary if your marriage is struggling and you’re worried about stepparent visitation rights. Knowing your options and having time to prepare may be the key to ensuring you and the children you love have the right to enjoy a steady, healthy, and long-term relationship.
Contact the Law Offices of Gerard Falzone to schedule a consultation and receive personalized recommendations and advice. First and foremost, I’m committed to mediation and child custody/visitation decisions that are as nonconfrontational as possible. However, I’m willing to go to court and protect your rights – and the rights of any child – if necessary.